You've been talking about it for months, and now you've finally taken the plunge and bought yourself a shiny new home computer. Or perhaps you're an IT manager who's just upgraded the systems for an entire department. Well, don't put your wallet away, because you've just started shelling out for all the things you'll need during the life of these computers.
The thrill of getting a new machine, or the relief of outfitting a business with a fleet of computers, can mask an elemental truth about the purchase. "People don't always think about what they're getting into when they buy a new computer," observes Geoff Butterfield, director of information technology projects at the George Lucas Educational Foundation.
Whether at home or in the workplace, computers really are the gift that keeps on giving, and not always in a good way. Applications; supplies such as printer ink and paper; wasted time; and health issues are among the many costs you'll encounter during the life of your computer.
And just wait until you try to get rid of the thing. Michael Corleone's lament in The Godfather: Part III comes to mind: just when you thought you were out (of the business of paying computer-related expenses, that is), they pull you back in.
But you don't have to just sit there and take it. While you can't avoid the costs associated with owning and using computers entirely, you can reduce them. PC Advisor's sister title Computerworld provides tips for minimising the damage.
When you get a computer, it usually comes preloaded with several applications: a basic text editor or two, a media player, some games and more basic tools. All of which you will outgrow very quickly. Yes, WordPad will open a Word document, but will it do so with all of Word's functionality? Of course not.
So you'll end up buying additional software - personal finance packages such as Quicken, some more advanced games, maybe an office suite (usually Microsoft's). You'll find that software can be quite expensive. And that's before you try to get things like spreadsheets and check registers to work together, only to find that you're spending a lot of time fighting the urge to tear out your hair. If you're an IT chief for a business, you can multiply that roughly by the number of employees you have.
"Getting applications to play nice with each other takes up a lot of our time and budget here," says Paris Finley, director of information technology at the Daily Hampshire Gazette in Massachusetts. "People are constantly needing to shift data around different applications, and very few apps make it easy for users to do that."
"The training time when someone changes their system or a key application is huge," says Michael Crowley, director of networking at Mount Holyoke College, also in Massachusetts. "They're used to what they have, they rely on it and then they get the new application - or even just a new version of their old one - and it doesn't behave the way they're used to."
Crowley points out that the shift to a new operating system often comes with the purchase of a new computer: "Every IT director deals with version control issues, whether it's the shift from Mac OS 9 to OS X, or now what we're seeing in some places where they've decided to make the jump from [Windows] XP to Vista."
For home users, that switch is essentially enforced. If you buy a new machine today, you're also getting the newest version of the operating system for that computer. Applications that you've been using without a hitch may not work as smoothly under the new operating system, and anything that's more than a few years old is in danger of not working at all. Those Windows 98-era games you've loved to play for years? Better keep an old machine around to have something they'll work on.
What you spend on the computer itself can determine how much you'll end up eventually spending on software. "A lot of people go for the cheapest computer, and they end up with Microsoft Works preloaded on it," says Peter Yared, chief technology officer at web applications developer ActiveGrid. "When they find out how limited that is, they end up buying the whole Microsoft Office suite anyway - and at the retail price, instead of the OEM discount they would have gotten by getting it in the first place."
Planning is key to avoiding spending a lot on software. Whether in the home or in business, knowing what you need ahead of time and looking for compatible packages (often in the form of bundles or suites) can save you a lot of expense down the road. Also, look for add-ins that may bring good software along for the ride. "Sometimes, if you opt in for a webcam or a DVD drive, you end up getting some decent software in the bargain," says Yared. "A DVD drive might come with a really good DVD editing package."
And don't forget to investigate free software options. Even for commercial platforms like Windows and the Mac, you can find plenty of solid, well-tested apps - such as Thunderbird or Eudora for email - that are free or safely ad-sponsored.
That printer was such a deal; now you'll be able to keep copies of key documents, run out your own tax forms, draft letters and maybe even print jewel-box liners for those Grateful Dead bootlegs you've been downloading...and all for just £100! Not so fast, though. Do you know just how much paper and printer ink you're about to get through?
Paper is the easy one. Brand doesn't matter much, and it should last you a while - especially if you follow such good-for-the-planet practices as using both sides of the paper for printing non-critical output.
But the stuff you use to print with? Brace for some sticker shock...especially when you discover that it's very likely that your printer has to have ink from the same manufacturer. "Toner is one of the things you have the least control over," says Butterfield. "Manufacturers can really tie you into their brand. If you try to buy off-market, it's hard to find, there's no guarantee that it'll work, and if you make the mistake of calling [the manufacturer's] support, they just tell you they don't support unbranded stuff."
Welcome to the world of vendor lock-in - the phenomenon in which your software or hardware will work only under a specific platform, or worse yet, only with a specific company's products. Printers are notorious for lock-in, but an appalling amount of your software will behave the same way. Macs don't talk readily to Windows (and barely did whatsoever until the recent advent of Intel-based Macs), multimedia applications need specific drivers to work with your video card and just try to open a Photoshop image without having the real Adobe thing. There's usually a way around all of these problems, but that requires knowledge and research, and - you got it - those take time and money.
Back to printers for a moment. Even if you get sucked into the spiral of using vendor-specific printing supplies, there are a couple of steps you can take to lower your overall costs. The first one is simple self-discipline - asking yourself, do you really need to print that paper out? After all, it's just creating more paper clutter in the house or office, and that's something we can all do without. But if you need to print something, black-and-white is vastly cheaper than printing in colour.
Finally, if it's time to purchase a new printer, don't just go for the lowest price. It pays to cruise the toner aisle to see if the brand of printer you're considering has particularly pricey ink cartridges.
At the business level, vendor lock-in gets trickier. If you're running a specific server platform such as Windows Server or Mac OS X Server, you need apps that work under those platforms. Fortunately, open source has grown up, and there's a decently robust and well-documented free download available for every commercial Red Hat Enterprise Server or Novell SUSE Linux. These days, you even have access to desktop GUIs for Linux, such as GNOME, that are as simple to use as Windows.
The adventurous home user might explore using Linux and open-source applications as well. Be warned that although the cost is virtually nil upfront for freely downloadable packages, you're going to make up for that in the elbow grease of self-installation and configuration.
The health conundrum – part one
Computers - or more specifically their keyboards and mice - are one of those things you're likely to touch every day. And in most situations, other people are going to as well. At home? You're probably fighting for time on the computer with your spouse's email checks or your kids' video games. At work, colleagues and bosses are blithely going to tap on your keys or click your mouse as you collaborate on solving work problems.
And that means all of those people are going to leave you a little present or pick one up from you - germs. In flu and cold season, there's no question that your desk and computer equipment are harbouring plenty of bugs. A study by Chuck Gerba, a microbiologist at the University of Arizona, found that untreated desks harbour 99 percent more germs than ones that have been disinfected.
"Any device that you share can carry germs. We all push more buttons than we ever did before," says Gerba. "Phones are bad; TV remotes are the worst. But increasingly, computers are on the list, because they're such a centre of activity at home and in the workplace."
The resulting costs in missed work and lost productivity, medications and cold/flu remedies, and general physical misery can run in total into the hundreds of dollars per person per year for affected employees, says Gerba. (The misery is free; it's the productivity drop that'll really get you.)
The answers to this cost are some basic, small upfront costs: Some antibacterial wipes for your equipment and soap or other cleansers (and these don't need to be antibacterials) to wash your hands frequently. Gerba says the wipes are a better idea for the keyboard than a spray would be, but sprays are okay for the rest of your desk area.
From a business perspective, providing disinfectants is a good idea, but there's a little more planning to be done. The Centers for Disease Control has prepared a checklist for use in planning for a pandemic-level flu, but it'll do just as well in helping to plan for basic illness season and preventing wide outbreaks in the workplace. Arranging with local health authorities to get flu shots for your employees is also a fine idea. And about those handshakes when you greet a visitor to your office in wintertime? You may want to perfect the art of the Japanese bow.
Back, neck and wrist pain
The plain and simple truth is that we spend too many hours at the computer. Work a 40-hour week (and many will laugh at that paltry figure), and that's 2,400 minutes every week spent in a seated (or slouching) position, staring at a screen, typing and mousing away - all direct contributors to repetitive motion injuries, back and neck pain, eyestrain, headaches, poor circulation and even obesity. Add time spent on the home computer writing emails and instant messages, watching videos, working with digital photos, doing online banking, playing games and so on, and you're in danger of doing your body serious harm. ‘Tennis elbow’ may as well be renamed ‘mouse bite’ these days.
Having workers injured from computer use can be a company's worst nightmare. You thought having the flu go around your office was bad? Think about losing one or more employees to short- or long-term disability leave, paying for their physical therapy, accepting reduced hours as they slowly recuperate enough to return to the workplace. Think about the extra strain it will put on your other employees as they try to compensate for the injured workers.
We're not talking small numbers here: A 2003 report from the US Bureau of Labour Statistics (download in PDF format) found that in 2001, private employers reported that workers lost more than 65,000 days from work as a result of repetitive motion injuries. The situation seems to be improving; that number had dropped to about 43,800 for private industry workers in 2005 (download report in PDF format). But that still represents a serious amount of lost staff hours and productivity.
In this case, an ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure. Recovering from repetitive strain, neck or back injuries in particular can be excruciatingly painful and slow. It's far better to make sure you don't damage your body in the first place. Making sure that your workstation is set up ergonomically, that your sitting posture is correct, and that your station has proper lighting can all help. So can ergonomic input devices, such as modified keyboards and mice, and LCD monitors, which don't flicker the way CRT monitors do and thus cause less eyestrain.
Perhaps even more important is simply getting up and moving around on a regular basis. Focus your eyes on something in the distance to relieve them from focusing close up. Try doing simple stretches at your desk, such as those demonstrated at the My Daily Yoga website. If you're at home, take a break to walk the dog, check the mailbox or throw in a load of laundry.
Businesses, it's up to you to provide your employees with a healthy work environment. That includes paying attention to physical workstations, equipment, lighting and so on, but also encouraging employees to take frequent breaks, stretch and exercise regularly. And make sure they don't spend their lunch hour hunched at their desks - providing a break room where workers can be computer-free for an hour will relax overstressed bodies and minds.
In the broadband world, the impediments to getting your tasks done - whether at work or home - are as large as the internet itself. And in the workplace, that adds up to potentially thousands of dollars in lost productivity.
"You can get sucked into doing other things so easily," says Crowley. "The computer is a classic way to lose track of time, especially if it's connected to the Net."
"Even at work, it's just so common to get distracted from the things you need to do," says Butterfield. "You check your email box, and before you know what happened, an hour is gone."
The stats bear it out. According to an infamous survey of more than 10,000 nationwide workers by AOL and Survey.com back in 2005, the average worker is burning more than two hours a day - that's a quarter of the entire eight-hour workday, and more than double the amount that employers actually assumed was being wasted - finding ways to skive off at work.
Sure enough, web surfing led the list of most popular methods; nearly 45 percent of the respondents listed it as one of the ways they managed to fill their time at work. When the survey team did the maths, it came up with a productivity waste to US companies of $759bn. Even if you give or take $100bn or so, you're talking serious money.
One answer to holding down costs associated with wasted productivity is discipline - whether from the self or externally. Some of the remedies are the same in both instances. First, lose the time-wasters - games such as Minesweeper and Solitaire, media players and other things preloaded on a machine that can suck down hours before you know what's happened. If the machine is yours, delete them; if you're an IT manager, kill them before issuing a new computer to an employee.
Apps such as email, instant messaging or even the web that are mission-critical to a business are harder to get around; your employees need those to get their jobs done in most cases, after all. But to keep productivity at good levels and ensure that employees aren't abusing business systems, it's wise to set out whether workers can use company applications for any personal use, and to set limits and exclusions if for some reason you decide to permit that.
"You should know what your policy is on business use of those things at all times, and you should get that on the table with all of the employees at your business," says Finley. Using enterprise web monitoring software - and clearly outlining its use for your employees - will help reinforce your online policies.
Whether you're at work or at home, setting a pre-assigned time for checking and responding to email is a good idea, as is handling every email only once (just like organisers tell you to do with your physical paper). Another good investment of your time is to learn your email program's filtering capabilities, to divert themed or non-essential messages to appropriate mailboxes where you can decide when to check them. As you build more filters and tune them, that'll expose the messages you really need to concentrate on, too. (See 43 Folders' Five fast e-mail productivity tips for more ways to streamline the time you spend e-mailing.)
The addiction of web surfing, meanwhile, may be why you got a home computer in the first place, but that doesn't mean you can't be efficient about it. Try using a browser, such as Firefox, that's tabbed browsing-enabled and allows you to save and open groups of tabs at once (or even save a group as your home "page"); that'll let you open and scan sites far more quickly than surfing to them one by one.
Of course, it's not only skiving off that's a productivity-killer. Many of us spend a great deal of time downloading and installing security patches and other software updates (made all the more aggravating when a connection gets lost halfway through the download), restarting the computer when an app hangs or the whole system crashes, and otherwise managing our machines instead of getting work done on them.
There's not much you can do when your system crashes other than wait through the restart cycle. But you can set your home computer to automatically download and install software updates in the background (or better yet, you can have them automatically download but wait for your go-ahead to be installed). Keeping your antivirus and other security software up to date in this manner is especially important - it'll keep the nasties out and save you the time and aggravation of cleaning up a compromised system, and probably prevent numerous crashes to boot.
IT managers, you've already established your own distribution procedure for automated software updates on all your users' systems, right? Because you sure don't want 1,000 computers in your company telling Microsoft, "Yes, send me that patch" at the exact same time.
The end costs
It's four years later, and you've been dying to get a new computer - and now you've taken the plunge. It's out of its box, shiny and new, and that once-gleaming machine that's served you over the last four years is still sitting on your desktop, about to be replaced ... and what are you going to do with that, anyway?
Well, unless you have some space in your garage where you're willing to set your aged PC down permanently, you're going to have to consider how to get rid of it - and traditionally that has been one last cost that your computer has just socked you with.
Fortunately, new recycling regulations in the form of the WEEE Directive are here, bringing sweeping changes to the way consumers and businesses dispose of old computers and peripherals.
Under the new regulations, responsibility for financing electrical waste passes to those that produce it, while retailers have an obligation to offer to take back old equipment when customers buy something new.
Much will depend on where you buy your new computer, but in general you will take old circuitry to the tip, or to any of the “Designated Collection Facilities” listed here.
But this doesn’t mean the headache is over completely. Security conscious people will want to make sure there’s no personal or financial data left on those machines before they’re sent for recycling.
Even for home users, it's likely that you've built up a whole slew of data on that old computer that you don't want anyone looking at - or using to steal your identity. "People have all sorts of stuff like Quicken or tax return information on their computers," says Butterfield. "You do not want somebody getting hold of that data; that's a goldmine."
What should the home user do? Well, you need to protect the data on the computer. Either you need to store files on removable media (CD or DVD are the likeliest choices) and erase the hard drive - we'll get back to that in a second - or you need to pull out the hard drive and keep it when you take the rest of the machine in for recycling. And you will need to recycle it; a PC has too many hazardous materials inside of it to just leave out with the trash.
If you're going to erase your hard drive after you've extracted all of the data from it, it's not just a matter of dragging the files to the Recycle Bin (Trash on a Mac), and emptying those out. All that does is make space that can be overwritten by new files; until then the old data is actually still sitting on your machine.
You need to actually overwrite the parts of the disk holding the deleted files, using a utility such as Cipher (provided as part of Windows) or a similar overwriting software. You may want to do it more than once, too. If your data is particularly sensitive, consider buying Department of Defense-certified disk sanitation software.
For business users, though, there's much more to the question than just getting rid of old computers; that's because those machines almost certainly have business-critical information on their hard drives that you don't want leaking out into someone else's hands. The choices of how to deal with that data are not easy. Do you pull and store the drives? "That makes [the information] smaller and thus far easier to steal," says O'Brien. Clean the disks off? "That takes an amazing amount of man-hours and effort." Store the old machines somewhere? "Then you're paying a lot of money for storage space for all those machines. Businesses don't have garages."
The answer, says O'Brien, is planning cyclical disposals even as you buy the new batch of machines. "It's not a one-time event; it's an ongoing part of your IT process," she says. "You need to budget time and money to clean off old computers, and have a place to go with them well ahead of time, too."
The process won't be cheap. Gartner's 2005 US figures looking at PC disposal costs in the enterprise pegged the cost of any method of getting rid of a PC at about $55 to $130 per machine, but some methods were cheaper than others. Selling old PCs to your employees might seem like an attractive option, but that was actually the most expensive way to dispose of a PC, according to the report. The costs of follow-up tech support and some processing costs drove the total to $130.63 even after getting some money back on the sale.
Total destruction of the PC and hard drive was the cheapest upfront option because it cut out $21 worth of costs to sanitize the data and reload the operating system - but because companies can't get any money back on a sale, that also wasn't the best value in the long run.
A brokered sale or auction of the machine, after the data and operating system had been cleaned off, costs only $55.63 per machine - easily the best of the options. Still, multiply that by a fleet of, say, 100 computers, and you're out more than $5,500 before you've paid a dime for the replacements. See why you need to budget the replacement process way ahead of time?
Once you've dealt with your old machine, you're free to enjoy the experience of having a new, powerful machine at your disposal. Or, if you're an IT manager, you can take a deep breath before you resume the planning cycle for the next batch of machines. Either way, though, don't put your wallet away yet ...